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British organist Kit Downes to play at St. Olaf Church

Kit Downes
Photo by Alex Bonney
Kit Downes, a young British pipe organist, will play a free concert Sunday evening on the St. Olaf Catholic Church’s Lively-Fulcher organ.

In April 2013, musical giant John Zorn spent a whole day at the Walker at a “Zorn-a-thon” in honor of his 60th birthday. Over 10 hours, he spoke with the Walker’s Philip Bither and gave three completely different performances with three groups of musicians. Sometime before midnight, Zorn led a crowd across the street to St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. He was itching to play its recently rebuilt Flentrop pipe organ. By way of introduction, Zorn said, “When I’m playing, I feel like I’m improvising with an orchestra … It was my first instrument. I played it as a kid.”

The concert was unpredictable and unforgettable. Huge block chords, ethereal melodies, chimes, drones, musical thunder and lightning. The building shook. Ever since, we’ve been longing to hear the pipe organ played in nontraditional ways.

Earlier this year, the SPCO’s Liquid Music series brought young British pipe organist James McVinnie to Northrop for a performance with the electronics duo Darkstar. It was awesome. McVinnie played for Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding in Westminster Abbey. He can do traditional brilliantly. But he’s also a member of Bedroom Community, the Icelandic record label/collective that includes people like Nico Muhly, Ben Frost and Sam Amidon. Liquid Music has had close ties with Bedroom Community for years. In 2013, McVinnie released an album on Bedroom Community called “Cycles 1,” with music by Muhly. He later made an album of music by Philip Glass.

Nontraditional music on pipe organ is happening. Slowly, which probably fits an instrument that had its start in ancient Greece (where it was powered by water), can have several thousand pipes and won’t fit in an airplane’s overhead. The pipe organ doesn’t come to you. You have to go to the pipe organ, most often in a church.


At St. Olaf Catholic Church in downtown Minneapolis, Kit Downes, another young British pipe organist, will play a free concert Sunday evening on the church’s Lively-Fulcher organ. Like Zorn, Downes played the organ as a child. His local church happened to be Norwich Cathedral in Norfolk. Downes sang in the choir and played during services, improvising on psalms and hymns.

He was barely into his teens when his mother gave him the Oscar Peterson album “Night Train.” Downes spent the next 15 years playing jazz piano. He attended the Royal Academy of Music in London, where he now teaches. He formed his own trio and quartet, played with other bands and musicians, recorded as a leader and a sideman, and toured. He won a BBC Jazz Award, and his trio album “Golden” was shortlisted for Great Britain’s Mercury Prize. Stateside, Downes was twice nominated as a Downbeat Rising Star. With Norwegian drummer Thomas Stronen’s band, he recorded for the prestigious German label ECM.

A few years back, Downes got together with a friend, saxophonist Tom Challenger, for some experimental projects with organ and sax. In 2018, he released his first solo album on ECM – on pipe organ, not piano. Actually three different pipe organs in England, from large to very small. Because every pipe organ is different, and Downes is deeply interested in colors, voices, tones, and nuances. All of which he exquisitely explores in “Obsidian,” an album of mostly original compositions and improvisations. The reviews have been glowing. Downes’ next album for ECM, on which he plays both organ and piano with an ensemble of musicians, is due out in October. He is creating a unique identity and space for himself in modern music.

Downes will be here because MPR’s Michael Barone, creator and longtime host of the “PipeDreams” radio program, heard “Obsidian” soon after its release and got in touch with Downes. When Downes was planning a 2019 North American tour, he told Barone he would like to play a date in Minneapolis. Barone made the arrangements. Meanwhile, he featured Downes on “Pipedreams” twice.

And now we’ll get to hear this rarity, a classically trained musician who has made a name in jazz but is drawn to the pipe organ and its limitless possibilities. We don’t yet know what he’ll play on Sunday. Downes probably doesn’t either; he’ll need to spend some time on the Lively-Fulcher first, to see what it can do, and what the building sounds like. (Playing the pipe organ also means playing the building it’s in.) The music won’t be like anything anyone has heard before.

If you were among the hundreds of people who stayed up late for John Zorn in 2013, or heard McVinnie at Northrop earlier this year, or you just want to hear the mighty pipe organ played in new ways, you can do that this Sunday, June 30, at 7 p.m.  at St. Olaf Church. RSVP through Facebook or just show up. The concert is free.

If you’d like to know more about Kit Downes, this writer penned a piece for the Star Tribune that ran last Sunday. And Peter Hum, who writes for the Ottawa Citizen, spoke with Downes before a concert in West Quebec.

The picks

Now at the Park Square Theatre: “Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant.” First presented at the 2017 Fringe Festival, workshopped and fleshed out with Park Square’s Laura Leffler, this is a fizzy adult beverage of a summer musical. “Avenue Q” meets “The Book of Mormon” with a little bit of “Heathers” mixed in as a small-town, middle-school talent pageant is resurrected 20 years after a contestant died onstage. Book, music and lyrics by Keith Hovis, directed by Laura Leffler. A world premiere. For ages 16 and up. FMI and tickets ($26-60). Closes July 28.

Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant
Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma
"Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant" now at the Park Square Theatre.
Tonight (Friday, June 28) at the Loft: Danez Smith: Loft Mentor Series reading. Smith is the author of “Don’t Call Us Dead,” published by Graywolf in 2017 and a finalist for the National Book Award. Smith is also a Lambda Award winner and recipient of the inaugural Four Quartets Prize from the Poetry Society of America and the T.S. Eliot Foundation. For the past year, Smith has mentored fiction writer Haeyoon Fry, short story writer Jessie Lee-Bauder and creative nonfiction writer Hilal Isler. This reading will be a culmination and a celebration. 7 p.m. FMI and tickets ($10, $5 Loft members).

Opens tonight at the Lagoon: “Framing John DeLorean.” Gull-wing doors. Stainless steel panels. Was the DeLorean one of the coolest cars ever made? Part documentary, part fictionalized re-enactment (with Alec Baldwin as DeLorean), this film tells the story of the controversial automaker and former G.M. executive who was arrested for cocaine trafficking. It’s good to see Baldwin play someone besides Donald Trump. FMI including trailer, times and tickets.

Tonight and Saturday at Vieux Carré: Last call. These will be the final two nights before VC closes its doors. The kitchen shut down earlier this week, but you should still be able to order a Sazerac. Tonight the excellent guitarist Joel Shapira will perform at 6:30 p.m. (no cover), followed by the Southside Aces at 9 p.m. ($12). Saturday will feature pianist Jeremy Walker at 6:30 p.m. (no cover) and the Joyann Parker Band at 9 p.m. ($10). FMI.

Saturday on West Lake Street in Minneapolis: Somali Independence Day Festival. A family-friendly event with live music, a carnival, games and food. From Blaisdell to Stevens Ave. along West Lake Street. 1-8:30 p.m.

Sarah Bellamy
Courtesy of Minnesota Original
Sarah Bellamy is featured on this Sunday's edition of Minnesota Original.
Sunday on your teevee: Minnesota Original. MNO’s 10th broadcast season comes to an end by broadening the definition of diversity. Featured this week are Sarah Bellamy, artistic director of the important African American theater founded by her father, Lou Bellamy, more than 40 years ago; Bee Yang, traditional Hmong song poet and war refugee (and father of award-winning writer Kao Kalia Yang); Marcie Rendon, citizen of White Earth Nation, author, poet and playwright; and Giving Voice Chorus, which brings together people with Alzheimer’s and their care partners to sing in choruses that foster joy, well-being, purpose and community understanding. Airs Sunday at 10 p.m. on TPT 2. All 10 seasons are online and viewable anytime.

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